A Century-Old Feminist Sephardi Novel Is Back–and It’s Awesome.


The name Blanche Bendahan is not well known to western readers, but after the recent translation (by Yaelle Azagury and Frances Malino, and the first in English), of her fascinating novel, Mazaltob (Brandeis University Press, $29.95) it no doubt will be. Bendahan (1893–1975) was born in Algeria to a Jewish family of Moroccan descent and moved to France as a small child. She wrote poetry as well as fiction, and Mazaltob, her first novel, was awarded a prize from the Académie Française in 1930.

Called the first feminist Sephardi novel, Mazaltob tells the story of a young woman raised in the Judería or Jewish quarter of Tetouan, Morocco, at the turn of the 20th-century.  Sixteen-year-old Mazaltob is betrothed to José, a rather crude sort from her own community. But she is in love with Jean, who is French, half-Jewish, and an unconventional free spirit.  Her competing desires—loyalty to her family, faith and culture, or freedom to love whom she chooses—form the spine of this novel, which exposes the chafing constraints that bound North African Jewish women poised on the cusp of emancipation and decolonization.

Read a short excerpt below.

She never sees her mother elegantly dressed until Friday’s deep cleaning is complete, when dusk lights the stars and instantly kindles in each room the candles for the Sabbath. 

The floors have been scrubbed again and again. The aromas of the simmering albondigas fill the entire household. 

The beautiful little girl will be an accomplished woman. 

Early on we taught her to respect all that pertains to religion. When one of her younger brothers drops a prayer book, she screams, as per tradition: “The head!” which is short for: “May your head drop sooner than a sacred book!” 

But she has never given much thought to the cruel meaning of her words. 

The beautiful little girl is clever. When we send her out to buy “white” she goes to the coalman. Why? Because she knows full well that by giving the thing its real name, the “black” that is the color of mourning, she would risk drawing the attention to her family of el huerco, the angel of death. 

The beautiful little girl has a kind heart. 

Every day, on her way back from school, after doing her homework, after studying her lessons, after putting her baby brother to sleep, after bathing her sister and combing her hair, she still finds time to run errands for her invalid grandmother. 

And the old lady, moved by such kindness, bestows blessings on her in the manner of Tetouan: “Oh Mazaltob, my light, your name means: good luck. I wish upon you one hundred years of happiness. That you may marry. That you may give birth to boys. That your home may be filled with circumcisions and communions!…Oh Mazaltob, picture of joy, clear diamond, your name and your beauty will bring you luck.” 

Baudelaire dreamt of a mineral landscape like this. Everywhere, gray stone, strangling the horizon. 

Passageways like narrow corridors. The tiniest windows with screens made of a fine wire netting that would never allow for a branch or a flower to find its way in. On the ground, pressed against each other like rows of herrings from the Nordic scas, the small pointy pavements cannot exhale a single blade of green grass. 

Buy the novel here.